Like Medusa’s Serpent-Coils…

Catnip, Anyone?

Catnip, Anyone?

Some very half-baked thoughts just before I run out the door…

A few recent exchanges – here, here and here – have in the last few days have had me saying the same sort of thing, namely that generic characteristics are useful as tools more than signifiers – that in any book worth its salt there will be more than one thing happening. So, for instance, mimesis is an effect which must be applied in science fiction. In our Little Stranger discussion, Abigail and I agree that our differences stem from a fundamentally different relationship with the novel: Abigail is interested primarily in the ghost story aspect of the novel. This seemed to me a pity because, it seemed to me, the ghost story of the book is primarily interesting in so far as it is used to bolster what all the other parts of the book are doing at the same time.

I was reminded of The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas was something of a profiteering master at throwing every possible genre at his book and letting stick what stuck. One of the final chapters sees our heroes punish Milady, their intractable and irredeemable foe for the previous 700 pages. The chapter has a sense of triumph and justice, then, but there is also an overriding sense of horror: in the book’s sequel, we will be unsurprised to find that the noble Athos is haunted by these very events. Dumas liberally applies the Gothic throughout the chapter, yet so mixed is the effect that it produces a feeling not of horror but merely unease: the episode manages to deny us our sense of revenge without convincing us that the musketeers are villains. It’s a clever generic balancing act which a reader looking just for the horror of the passage would simply miss.

Sometimes a job is so complex that its proper completion requires many tools from a variety of boxes, not just the ones with which we’re familiar.


4 thoughts on “Like Medusa’s Serpent-Coils…

  1. I know Abigail can speak for herself, but I have to say that isn’t how I read your disagreement: indeed she says that “I’m looking for that unease you’re talking about and finding an imbalance instead”. That is, she seems to me to be saying that The Little Stranger is failing to do different things at the same time; that it aspires to do so, but that in the end it is more interested in doing one thing. Which, not coincidentally, is the thing you’re interested in. You seem to me to be saying the ghost story bolsters the rest of the book, but that prioritises “the rest of the book”; a book that did multiple things at the same time would have those aspects buttressing each other, not one unilaterally supporting the other. (In fact, isn’t Abigail’s argument against The Little Stranger very similar to some of our arguments against The City & The City?)

    More generally, I’m surprised at what seems (to me) to be a strong assumption underlying your argument here: that there are correct readings of books that a reader should uncover. I haven’t read Dumas, but it sounds very much as though you could read the passage you describe as the sense of triumph and justice reinforcing the horror of the treatment of Milady, rather than ameliorating it; that is, a reader “looking just for the horror” could have a powerful and memorable experience. And I would have a hard time telling them they were wrong to have done so.

    So I would turn around what you say: it’s not that any book worth its salt will have more than one thing going on (be using more than one set of tools), it’s that any book worth its salt can be understood to have more than one thing going on. But I don’t think that reading should be privileged over one that draws out the importance of one or other element, or vice versa.

    I can feel myself descending into abstraction here; I think this needs to be grounded in a book we’ve both read for me to full understand what you’re getting at. But since I’ve not read The Little Stranger, and can’t discuss Black Man, I’ll leave it to you to suggest what book that should be…

  2. danhartland says:

    a book that did multiple things at the same time would have those aspects buttressing each other

    Which is exactly what the book does. 😛 It doesn’t privilege any one of its readings, in exactly the way you describe, and yet to pick one of them and stick with it is, though you are right when you say that to do so would be valid, nevertheless therefore incomplete. Is my perspective.

    ETA: Abigail is naturally free to mischaracterise me at the earliest retributive opportunity. 😛

  3. I’m a bit confused — you quote me talking about The Little Stranger, but respond to what I said about Dumas. So I’m not sure which book you’re talking about when you say that to pick one reading would be valid or incomplete.

    Should I introduce the dread word equipoise at this point? :p

  4. danhartland says:

    So I’m not sure which book you’re talking about when you say that to pick one reading would be valid or incomplete.

    I’m talking about TLS, but also there’s the general point that a narrow reading is always valid and often powerful, but rarely complete. Though I was feeling a bit off when I replied last night, so probably didn’t make that clear. (Bear in mind this whole post was a rush job, too!)

    And I’d really rather you didn’t. :p (Although, yes, there is a certain amount of that in what I’m saying.)

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